HATS and gladrags at the ready, the Dublin Horse Show is trotting into town with the world’s equestrian elites on its coat-tails. All eyes are on the Aga Khan trophy, arguably the most famous Nations Cup prize on the planet. Currently in Irish hands, the showjumping team under Ireland’s Chef D’Equipe Robert Splaine are under pressure to retain it as a matter of good old-fashioned, honourable national pride.
“It’s hugely important to us, being Irish, that we give a good account of ourselves on the home turf, in front of the home crowd,” Splaine explains.
Clad in jodhpurs and riding boots at his home in the hills outside Belgooly, Co Cork, Splaine is relaxed and confident. Those seeking to bluff their way through the societal behemoth that is the 143rd Dublin Horse Show might benefit from his in-depth knowledge of horses. Forget about fetlocks blowing in the wind. The selection process for horses competing at this level is an intricate affair.
“I would be looking first at pedigree. Nice movements, confirmation. Good limbs, quarters, a good eye, good width in the forehead, I personally like nice big ears, there’s lots of things to look at.
“A good honest expression in the eyes is important, you want a horse that will try for you even when you make a mistake or the distance isn’t quite right or it’s a fence that looks confusing. Basically, a tryer.”
A father of three, Splaine is based at Coolcorron Equestrian Centre where he breeds and trains horses and runs the family farm with his son David’s help.
“My father had a milling company, his grandfather was in that business. There was also a timber works where they made all sorts of farm gates until times changed and iron became more popular. It came for a time for change and Dad bought the farm, which I have inherited thanks to him.
“In that mix, Dad always had a horse, so there was always that opportunity to be around horses. He trained racehorses, he was quite lucky and he was good at it. He was interested in show jumping and that got me going,” Splaine says.
The youngest of three siblings, he recalls his first round over fences on the competitive circuit at the tender age of twelve.
“It was a gymkhana showjumping event in Ballinhassig. I rode a 12.2 pony called Taffy owned by John Bowen of Bowen’s Cross. I got on well enough to encourage me to do it again,” he said.
“One thing led to another after Taffy. I ended up helping my sisters run a riding school here, (at the family farm and stables in Belgooly) we got more and more horses.”
“I was lucky to find some great owners, mostly from west Cork. Tim Joe Donovan from Clonakilty (who passed away recently) gave me a great horse.” It was this horse, Carrigroe, that shaped Splaine’s equestrian career. Exposure to a good horse at an early age is vital, he says.
“He was a great horse. He taught me what a good horse was. And that quality was what I started to look for in others. I often see young lads trying to make their way and riding horses that aren’t very good but they don’t know that,” he said.
Unlike most of our human celebrity superstars, a horse won’t tell you he is of star quality. That’s for the professionals to figure out.
“It’s a well-kept secret by the horse. Every day you work with a horse you learn something. They are very smart animals, hugely interesting to work with. Once you are mature enough to know that you don’t know it all, then you have a chance of surviving in the sport because they genuinely teach you a lot about honesty and bravery.
“It’s a delicate relationship, that relationship between a horse and rider and without it you won’t succeed at the highest level,” he says.
Trust is important, as is generosity; a horse that’s willing to compensate for a rider’s error. More and more owners are coming to Ireland looking for top riders, Splaine says.
“We have a great horse tradition historically and we have a great way of producing riders. From a young age they are involved in riding clubs and schools, the hunting field, the cross-country and by the time they are teenagers they could probably give most older riders from other countries a riding lesson.
“They are fearless and they ride everything, which gives them great experience. If you are only riding good horses, you don’t learn to ride by instinct. Ireland isn’t a particularly wealthy country. When you go to a show in Ireland there are a lot of families just out for the day and quite often the animals aren’t of high quality, but they are good, hardy.
“The kids have to figure out how to build a relationship with these animals to encourage them to jump bigger jumps than perhaps nature intended,” he says.
AS IRELAND’S senior showjumping manager, Splaine knows a lot about encouraging horses to accomplish ever higher feats. He was chef d’equipe in 2012 when Cian O’Connor clinched the first medal in Irish Olympic showjumping history in London with his horse Blue Lloyd.
Greg Broderick, selected by Splaine alongside Bertram Allen, Daragh Kenny, Denis Lynch and Cian O’Connor for this year’s Nations Cup squad in Dublin, is in “exceptionally good form”. Broderick, based outside Thurles, is shouldering all of Ireland’s hopes for an Olympic medal in Rio, after the Irish team missed out on a place thanks to a “hugely unusual” incident that cost Cian O’Connor a clear round.
“During the course of his round a steward on the course ran across him, distracted him and as a result he had a fence down. It was appealed but the decision wasn’t reversed. It was very unusual, even more unusual at championship level where everything is controlled to the utmost. It cost us a team place at the Olympics. We were 0.38 of a fault outside a qualifying place,” Splaine says.
The Nations Cup provides a timely platform for Splaine to show the world what our top show jumpers are capable of, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow considering the Dublin Horse Show has departed from its traditional August calendar dates to accommodate those preparing for the Olympics. “We have a very good squad at the moment, the best for many years, so it’s disappointing we didn’t get a team to the Olympics because we would be going with a seriously good chance of a team medal,” Splaine says.
Competing individually at Rio, Broderick is well placed to do Ireland proud, according to Splaine.
At the Nations Cup in St Gallen in Switzerland this year, Broderick and his Canadian-owned mount, MHS Going Global, were the only combination to jump a double clear. “He also jumped a double clear at the Grand Prix. Together, that’s a feat not achieved by anyone from any other country,” Splaine says. Unlike some of the golfers,
The Irish Chef D’Equipe is not overly worried about the Zika virus threat at Rio. The crew travelling from Ireland will be vaccinated for Typhoid, Hepatitis A, and with Revaxis prior to departure.
“Zika is not life-threatening. It’s spread through mosquito bites, so we will be doing everything we can to prevent those. There is a risk but it’s a small one in my opinion and it’s one I’m prepared to take. Others may see differently and that’s their choice,” Splaine says.
Not even the competition can waver his focus ahead of the Aga Khan cup: “I don’t bother with the competition because we are not directly competing against anybody, we are competing against the course. If you can beat the course-builder you’ll win,” he says.
The Dublin Horse Show runs from Wednesday to Sunday. For more, see www.dublinhorseshow.com .